Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when the ulnar nerve is stretched, compressed or irritated where it crosses the elbow – a spot often referred to as the “funny bone.”
The ulnar nerve is one of three main nerves in your arm; it begins in the side of your neck and ends in your fingers. The cubital tunnel is a small passageway of muscle, ligament and bone on the inside of the elbow that the ulnar nerve goes through.
Cubital tunnel syndrome may happen as a result of repetitive or prolonged activities that require you to bend or flex your elbow. It can also be triggered if you lean on your elbows a lot, sleep with your elbows bent, or have arthritis or bones spurs. In many cases, the cause isn’t known.
A distinctive symptom of cubital tunnel syndrome is aching pain on the inside of your elbow that’s similar to what you feel when you hit your funny bone. Most symptoms, however, occur in the hand and can include numbness and tingling, grip weakness, impaired finger coordination, or a pins-and-needles sensation.
The most effective treatment for cubital tunnel syndrome is to stop the activity that’s causing the problem. For more severe cases of ulnar nerve compression, surgery may be appropriate.
Left untreated, cubital tunnel syndrome can cause irreversible muscle wasting in the hand. That’s why it’s important to see a specialist for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment if symptoms are severe or last for more than a few weeks.
It’s also important to see a specialist because the symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome may be similar to other conditions such as medial epicondylitis (golfer's elbow).
Why Choose Cooper to Diagnose and Treat Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Cooper University Health Care has a team of four fellowship-trained and board-certified or -eligible hand surgeons with extensive experience in diagnosing and treating cubital tunnel syndrome. You can count on us for:
- State-of-the-art diagnostic resources: Cooper offers a comprehensive array of sophisticated technology for diagnosing cubital tunnel syndrome, including:
- Musculoskeletal ultrasound (MSK-US): We are one of the few centers in the region to offer this advanced modality
- Nerve conduction studies: To determine how well the ulnar nerve is working and help identify where it is being compressed
- Personalized treatment: Treatment is tailored to the severity of your condition and your overall health, and may include:
- Non-surgical treatments may include splinting or bracing to keep your elbow straight, especially at night; anti-inflammatory medications; and special exercises to help the ulnar nerve glide through the cubital tunnel
- Surgery may be indicated if conservative measures haven’t improved your condition, your ulnar nerve is extremely compressed, or nerve compression has caused muscle damage or weakness
Cubital Tunnel Syndrome Causes and Risk Factors
There are several things that can cause compression of the ulnar nerve at the elbow, including:
- Keeping your elbow bent for long periods (such as when sleeping) or repeatedly bending your elbow
- Leaning on your elbow(s) for long periods
- Fluid buildup in the elbow
- When the ulnar nerve slides out from its normal position when the elbow is bent; over time, this may irritate the nerve
- A blow to the inside of the elbow (“hitting your funny bone”)
Certain factors increase your risk of developing cubital tunnel syndrome:
- Bone spurs or arthritis of the elbow
- Cysts near the elbow joint
- Previous fracture or dislocation of the elbow
- Repetitive or prolonged activities in which the elbow is bent or flexed
- Swelling of the elbow joint
Symptoms of Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
While each person may experience cubital tunnel syndrome differently, these are the most common symptoms:
- Numbness and tingling in the hand and/or ring and little finger, especially when the elbow is bent (such as when holding the phone or driving)
- Hand pain
- Weak grip and difficulty with finger coordination due to muscle weakness in the affected arm and hand (usually seen in more severe cases of nerve compression)
- Aching pain on the inside of the elbow
Preventing Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
There are various steps you can take to help relieve the symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome:
- If you frequently use a computer, ensure that your chair isn’t too low, and don’t rest your elbows on the arms of your chair or your desk
- Avoid activities that keep your arm bent for long periods of time, or be sure to take frequent breaks to stretch your arms
- Don’t lean on your elbows or put pressure on the inside of your arm—for example, don’t drive with your arm resting on the bottom of the open window frame
- When sleeping, wear an elbow pad backwards, or wrap an ace bandage or towel around your straight arm to keep your elbow from bending
If your symptoms persist for more than a few weeks, or if they get worse, see a specialist right away.
To learn more about the services available for treating cubital tunnel syndrome at Cooper or to request an appointment, please call 800-8-COOPER (800-826-6737).
Refer a Patient
If you are a doctor who wants to refer a patient to Cooper for cubital tunnel syndrome care, please call 800-8-COOPER (800-826-6737).